“You’re about to go engage a dead man in a battle of wits. I’m coming.” Tyr dusted off his palms as he stepped over toward the other two.
“We’ll be relying on you, then.” Einarr clapped the old sailor on the shoulder.
“Y’got that right.”
“Let’s get to it, then.” Einarr turned from the gathering of his men to face the spectral display and swaggered forward into the light.
He raised a hand and called out to announce their approach. “Hail, my lord!”
“Hail, travelers.” The king’s voice was weary, but he stood to greet them anyway. “We have been waiting for you.”
“My apologies for the delay.”
“I do hope my men were not overly forceful with my invitation.”
“Merely a miscommunication, I’m afraid. To what do I owe the honor?”
“Well you are guests here on my island, are you not? What host would not extend a fitting welcome to those unlucky enough to wash up on these shores? Come! Eat, drink, and be merry, for all who wreck here are lost.”
“We will join you, then.” Does he not realize, then, what we spoke of earlier? Einarr hoped so.
“Wonderful! Please, come, enjoy my hospitality and while away the endless hours.”
Einarr shared a look with Tyr and Jorir. Tyr nodded once, in approval. Jorir shrugged, as though he, too, was not entirely certain how to take that.
Suddenly about him he realized he could hear the accustomed sounds of a feast now, where earlier the cave had been as silent as the artwork Erik had used to describe it. He could catch a whiff, here or there, of roasted meat, as well, as though the illusion were fading into reality.
Not good. Einarr’s breast fluttered as he realized how much more real the feast felt up close. It was to the best that he had Jorir and Tyr along, and that they had left men on the outside to break them free should the need arise.
Einarr took a tankard and pretended to drink as he moved among the other revelers – revelers who, as he moved closer, appeared not-quite solid, or as though their feast day clothes hid nothing but bones. He tried not to shiver: unnerving as it was, he had been granted a boon here. Easier by far to remember the sort of feast one was at when the illusion was thin in spots.
Easier still not to eat when the main course appeared to be dolphin. No-one hunted dolphins. They were a sailor’s best friend, as true as a hound on land. Had the Allthane been so decadent, or was it another artifact of the illusion? Einarr could not tell.
“What a curious table you have set, my Thane,” ventured Jorir. “I see dolphin steaks and Imperial confections… how did you come by such a spread?”
“Oh, one does what one must. The dolphin had been a nuisance for years, interfering with the walrus hunts and stealing fish right from the nets. Finally Svagnar over there… where is Svagnar?”
“’E took sick, ‘e did, milord,” rasped one of the skeletal figures around the table. “Said ‘e had a splitting ‘eadache.”
The skeleton whose head Jorir caved in, perhaps?
“Anyway, finally Svagnar decided enough was enough, got a bunch of the boys together to take him down. Once they’d hunted dolphin, though, we just had to try it. I tell you, some of the best meat around.”
“So this is that same dolphin, then?” Einarr could hear that his voice was faint. The idea of eating dolphin, even one killed as a nuisance, made him feel vaguely ill.
“The very same.”
The food isn’t real. Erik had known that from the very beginning. He had, too, but it was difficult to remember with his eyes and nose claiming otherwise.
Einarr glanced down at the drink in his hand: it no longer looked like mead, even in the golden glow of the feast, but rather stank of fetid marsh water. He managed not to grimace, but he no longer worried about accidentally drinking from the cup, either.
“Tell me, my lord, where was it the dolphin was slain?”
“Just off the southern cape. Come! Eat! Enjoy the bounty of the sea, and the talents of my cooks!”
“…My lord,” Tyr ventured. “There is no southern cape here. Only shifting sandbars and bog.”
“Nonsense!” The Allthane slammed his goblet down on the table, and before Einarr’s eyes the cave walls became dressed stone draped with tapestries far richer than anything he had seen in his visions of Raenshold. The golden glow remained, and now he heard the thin strains of a fiddler’s warm-up. “This is Heidirshold! You mean to tell me you have arrived now, just in advance of the Allthing, and you did not even know that?”
The Allthane seemed to have, at best, a tenuous grasp on reality… although under the circumstances, Einarr wasn’t certain he could blame the man. Spirit?
“Gentlemen! It seems the food is not to the newcomer’s liking. Who will join us all in the hallingdanse?”
“My lord-” Einarr started to beg off that, as well, but Jorir stopped him with an elbow in his side.
“I don’t think we can get out of this,” the dwarf whispered. “Just don’t forget that we’re dancing with ghosts.”
Einarr nodded. “My lord, we’d love to.”
The music picked up, and a drum and a fife joined the fiddle. Before Einarr could blink, the spirits who had been milling about the table, filling their ghostly mouths with insubstantial food, were now forming a circle off to the side. The cup Einarr had held without drinking was no longer in his hand. The men to either side began the side-stepping line dance that marked the outer ring of a hallingdanse.
Einarr waited. He would not be the first in the center. He intended to win – ghosts or no ghosts.